Get to know the real Dr. Seuss

    Theodor Seuss Geisel was born March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Mass. Although many often think of him as the grandfatherly figure of his later years, Geisel attended Dartmouth University and was a typical college student. He was editor in chief of Jack-O-Lantern, the humor magazine at Dartmouth, but was removed from his position after throwing a party that went against some of the university’s policies. So, not to be kept from publishing, he began submitting works under the name Seuss. This is the first known instance of him using his famous pseudonym. It fooled the university officials, and a character was born.

    Geisel started work as a cartoonist and was approached by Standard Oil to do advertisements for them. He was already drawing in his distinct style with Horton-esque elephants and turtles that looked like Yertle. He worked for more than 15 years in advertising, selling everything from Ford cars to Holly Sugar with his unique creations.

    During World War II, Geisel helped the Army create training films. The animated films featured a trainee named Private Snafu, and the narration was set to rhyme. While many were skeptical of a cartoon to train soldiers, the young recruits responded well to the movies.

    The first children’s book that Geisel was involved with was a bland book of children’s sayings, interestingly titled “Boners.” While the book failed, Dr. Seuss was launched into the world of children’s literature. In 1937, he wrote his own text to accompany his artwork for “And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street.” The rhythm of the book was based on the incessant rhythm of the engines of a luxury liner he had been traveling on.

    “The Cat in the Hat” is Seuss’ most well-known book, but few realize it started as a textbook for children. Houghton Mifflin and Random House asked Geisel to write a children’s primer using 220 new-reader vocabulary words to get kids interested in learning to read. While schools did not jump on the idea of using the book as a primer, it became wildly popular and remains so today. Publisher Bennett Cerf of Random House made a bet with Geisel that he could not write a book with 50 words or less. “Green Eggs and Ham” was born as a result of that bet.

    In 1948, Geisel moved to La Jolla into an old observation tower, which he called “The Tower.” He lived and worked there the rest of his life, locking himself away in the tower to work on his books in secret. He rarely shared his progress and often left essential pieces blank from his sketches.

    During the 1970s, Geisel’s friend Art Buchwald, the famed columnist, was harassing him about never writing a political book. So, Geisel took a copy of his book “Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now!,” crossed out Marvin’s name and wrote in Richard M. Nixon. Despite protests from Random House, Buchwald printed the text that way in his column. President Nixon resigned the following day and Geisel and Buchwald congratulated each other on their successful collaborative effort.

    “The Butter Battle Book” was published in 1984 and was a direct response to the arms buildup and threat of nuclear war during the Reagan administration. The Butter Battle illustrates the growing threat of war between the Yooks and the Zooks, who eat their bread butter-side-up and butter-side-down, respectively. The book ends with a blank page, leaving the ending without a climax, which was very controversial at the time. Everything about the book worried Random House, but Geisel defended his choices and got the book published with few changes to his original version. “The Butter Battle Book” was on the New York Times Bestseller List for adults for six months.

    Over 222 million copies of his books have sold around the world and are translated into 15 languages. He won an Oscar, two Emmys and the 1984 Pulitzer Prize. His works have been made into CD-ROMs, live-action films (for better or for worse) and even a theme park.

    To honor Seuss, Mandeville Special Collections is exhibiting many of his original drawings and artwork throughout the year. The current exhibition of his advertisements and political cartoons, titled “The Dr. Seuss You Never Knew,” runs until May 8. The next installment, “Dr. Seuss Between the Covers,” starts May 24 and is dedicated to his children’s books, from 1937’s “And to Think I Saw it On Mulberry Street,” to his final “Oh the Places You’ll Go!” in 1990. In October, the last exhibit, “The Cat in the Hat for President,” examines Seuss’ lasting influence on American popular culture.

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